Some forty years ago, in the desert just south of Moab, Utah, dynamite was used to blast caves into a sandstone cliff, leaving space to carve modern homes into the rock, and Rockland Ranch was born.
Rockland Ranch was founded in the 1970s by a man named Bob Foster to create a safe space for a community of fundamentalist Mormons. Nicknamed “The Rock”, it is entirely self-sufficient and complete with running water, electricity, internet access, and a working farm. It also houses three and a half years worth of pickled and jarred food for seven families (adding up to about 100 people including all the children) in case the apocalypse strikes.
Three Wives, One Husband is a new lid-lifting Channel 4 documentary which introduces us to the descendants of The Rock founder Bob Foster, and four other Mormon families. Apart from plural marriage and the bearing of many children, one key belief of fundamentalist Mormons is that the “end of days” will come and that there will be three and a half years of chaos. Hence all of the aforementioned pickles.
The footage in the first episode of the four-part series is incredibly intimate. We meet the Fosters: the family of Enoch, Bob’s son. The cameras catch it all: the home-birth of Enoch’s 17th baby, the baptism of several of his children, and the inevitable tensions between his wives Katrina and Lilian.
The Foster clan
Executive producer of the series Will Anderson explains that cameras were present at the home birth because Enoch Foster was courting a third wife, and inviting her to witness it acted as a sort of metaphor for how Mormons invite potential wives into their family. “That seemed to us quite hard to get your head around for people who don’t live in a polygamous community,” says Anderson, “but they invited Lydia so she could imagine how Enoch would be as a husband when she was having a child… there was a strong editorial reason for us to want to film it to explain that point.”
To gain the trust of The Rock residents, the film crew visited them three times before filming there for a year. They approached the families at a monthly council meeting, Anderson explains, and got access to five different families with the unanimous consent of the whole community.
Three Wives, One Husband diverts from the stereotype that fundamentalist Mormons are a cult, and is pioneering in the way that it sympathises with a community who get a lot of flack from the media. Anderson explains that for children who grow up at The Rock, polygamy is a point of discussion when they begin dating: it is not a necessary lifestyle choice, but an option. “I think genuinely that there is no pressure to carry on [with the practice],” he says, pointing out that of Bob’s thirty-odd children, not all of them are polygamous, straight, or even religious. “It’s not culty like that, I didn’t feel. It’s not like you have to live this way of life.”
Not only does the documentary break away from the Mormons-as-cult stereotype, it explores, with an open mind, an alternative to the monogamous society that many of us live in. “It’s not like our system is so perfect,” says Anderson, “The divorce rate is higher than ever before, people have affairs left right and centre… It’s clear to me that monogamy is not necessarily the perfect way of arranging a society.
“What I’m interested in is this alternative model. Part of the reason we like the people at The Rock is because in almost every other way they’re pretty normal and relatable: they do ordinary jobs, they watch the same sorts of programmes on telly as we do, they listen to the same sort of music. They’re not extreme characters, they’ve just chosen to organise themselves in a different way.”
While The Rock residents may be tuned into popular culture, they do live in the middle of nowhere. How integrated can they really be? Anderson explains that many of the Mormon husbands and wives work in Moab, the nearest town. They do the mail route and deliver post, one of them has a tiling business, one of the wives works in a bank and another is training to be a nurse in the local hospital. In terms of the children, about half are educated at the local state school, the other half are home-schooled. Utah is a very Mormon state so while the Moab locals may not be fundamentalists, “it’s not quite as strange for people there as it is for us over here”.
An aerial view of Hatch Rock, home to Rockland Ranch in Utah, from Google Earth
Indeed, it seems that it’s quite easy to become used to the Mormon way of life. Anderson reveals that three people in the crew – himself included – decided to have a baby while they were out there filming, “partly because you’re surrounded by these amazing families and you do slightly feel like you’re missing out”. He says that the The Rock residents found it “odd” that so many of the crew were in their thirties and either didn’t have children or had very small families.
Watching the documentary, though, it is hard not to wonder why the wives put themselves through the polygamist life. They find it, unsurprisingly, very difficult to watch their husbands fall in love with someone else, and at one point one of them admits that “the first year was hell for all of us”. But Anderson says that the wives don’t really question why they don’t have several husbands, partly because of their faith and also because of practicality. “[With polygamy] you can have very big families because you can impregnate the wives in turn,” Anderson says, “That’s effectively what they do, because you can have one wife that’s pregnant and there’s another who’s there to look after the babies. In reverse it doesn’t have reproductive value.”
Three Wives, One Husband is breaking the mould in that it seeks to understand polygamy, rather than send in the pitchforks. It is undoubtedly an uncomfortable watch at times – but at the same time extremely engrossing and oddly uplifting.